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County attorney outlines requirements for recreation district


At a May 21 joint work session of the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) and the Pagosa Springs Town Council, County Attorney Todd Weaver gave a presentation on the steps necessary to form a recreation district.

Later, at a June 6 work session, the Combined Parks and Recreation Advisory Board further discussed the possibilities and public interest in a recreation district.

At the May 21 work session, Weaver explained that creating a recreation district is complex and involves a four-step process.

That process includes developing a service plan, seeking approval of the service plan from the BoCC, receiving judicial approval and then going to an election for approval by the voters, after which the court formally forms the recreation district.

He stated that he reviewed a service plan developed in northern Moffat County about five years ago that served as a helpful example of a service plan.

Weaver stated that the individuals proposing the recreation district must develop a service plan first.

That plan covers what services a recreation district would provide, a financial plan for how these services would be funded, and preliminary engineering and architecture for any proposed buildings.

He explained that the plan must also include a district map, which can “flow over county boundaries.”

Weaver indicated that the plan must include an estimate of the value of the proposed district for the purposes of taxation.

He then outlined the process for BoCC approval of the service plan, which he stated is typically referred to the county planning commission prior to the BoCC considering it.

Weaver stated that this process involves various fees, notification deadlines and hearings, and that occupants of the proposed district must be informed about the BoCC hearing on the resolution to form the district, which Weaver noted must be done by those proposing the district and can be a significant undertaking if the district includes an entire county.

He added that those included in the district can petition to be excluded from the district and that the district cannot be formed if property owners owning property constituting 50 percent of the assessed value of the proposed district petition to be excluded.

In response to a question from Mayor Shari Pierce, Weaver explained that the elections involved in the district only include those registered to vote in the district, but that property owners who cannot vote — for reasons including that they live out of state — can petition to be excluded.

He also emphasized that there are a large number of additional technical details and steps involved in determining which properties could be included in the district and allowing owners to petition to be excluded.

Once the resolution for the creation of the recreation district is approved by the BoCC, Weaver explained that those proposing the district must file a petition for organization in district court.

He stated that the court’s primary job is to verify that the appropriate number of signatures have been collected for the petition. A petition must be signed by at least 30 percent or 200 of the electors for the proposed district.

Weaver added that the petition must be signed by those registered to vote in the district, not those who just own property in the district.

He explained that the petitioners must post a bond covering the costs of the proceedings and that the court must notice and hold a hearing where it confirms that the petition is signed by the correct number of electors.

If the court finds the petition is satisfactory, it can then order that the petition be submitted for consideration at an election, Weaver added.

If the petition is successful at the election, the court also declares the district organized, assigns the district its corporate name as designated in the petition and appoints the first board for the district.

Weaver then outlined the contents of the petition to the court, which he stated largely echo the contents of the service plan for the district.

He explained that, at the election on the formation of the recreation district, the voters typically both consider whether or not to approve the formation of the district and choose board members for the district.

Board member terms for the initial election are of varying lengths, Weaver indicated, with the board eventually having a set of staggered four-year terms.

He added that nominations for the board in the initial election can occur by self-nomination.

Weaver concluded that, if the voters approve the recreation district, the court then issues an order to form the district.

Town council member Matt DeGuise asked Weaver what he felt was a “realistic timeline” for the creation of a recreation district.

Weaver answered that he believes a district would likely take a minimum of two years, depending on the complexity of the recreation district’s goals, with a complex district potentially taking up to five years to form.

He added that the process would likely require a specialized attorney to assist in ensuring that the district formation is done correctly.

County Commissioner Veronica Medina asked if the county cannot initiate the formation of a recreation district.

Weaver explained that the county cannot because it cannot petition itself to form a district, which he commented would be an “inherent conflict of interest.”

He stated that there are a large number of recreation districts across the state and that people interested in forming one could potentially reach out to other districts to learn how they began the process and acquired the funds necessary to support the district formation process.

Town council member Madeline Bergon asked if it would require voter approval to expand the scope of district to other issues of recreation and park maintenance if the recreation district were formed around a recreation center.

Weaver stated that the service plan is critical in outlining what the district will do and needs to be an “all-encompassing document” that covers all potential activities of the district.

He added that, typically, special districts only have to go back to the voters when they want additional tax revenues, although he stated that he had not investigated this specifically for recreation districts.

Town Manager David Harris asked if Weaver was aware of any recreation districts that operate under another government entity, such as a town or county.

Weaver stated that he had not investigated this issue as he had focused on independent recreation districts.

However, he added that he was confident that there are examples of towns and counties who have used intergovernmental agreements or other mechanisms to operate funds and organizations for recreation.

Town Parks and Recreation Manager Darren Lewis asked if the formation of a recreation district could be initiated by the town or would have to be done by another entity.

Weaver stated that he was unsure, but that the statute specifies that citizens must petition the county.

Medina commented that, in previous conversations, Weaver stated that the parks and recreation board could potentially initiate the creation of a recreation district.

Weaver stated that he believes that board could initiate the creation of a district.

He added that a citizen group is typically formed containing representatives from a range of different organizations and interested citizens.

Town council member Leonard Martinez commented that Archuleta School District (ASD) and the Pagosa Lakes Property Owners Association (PLPOA) could be interested in the project and would have a stake in it.

Weaver expressed agreement with Martinez and added that the service plan could involve items like purchasing the current location of the Pagosa Springs Middle School and remodeling it for recreation or leasing property from the PLPOA for sports fields.

He added that, if the district wants to build a recreational facility, it would have to determine where it wants to build this facility to best benefit the whole district.

Lewis noted that he currently oversees a $1.8 million budget for Parks and Recreation and asked if the district would have to be “project oriented” or if it could help offset the budgetary expenses incurred by other entities.

Weaver stated that either approach could be possible, depending on what the service plan includes.

Pierce concluded the discussion by noting that the town council set exploring the possibility of a recreation district and establishing an exploratory committee as a goal for the year.

She added that she feels that involving citizens and potentially doing polling to determine support for the district among residents would be critical.

Combined Parks and Recreation Advisory Board discusses 

The Combined Parks and Recreation Advisory Board further discussed the topic of creating a countywide recreation district at its regular meeting on June 6.

Lewis began the conversation by explaining Weaver gave a presentation on the legal steps involved in creating a recreation district.

“It gave a lot of information,” Lewis said. “In my opinion it wasn’t very promising, though.”

Lewis explained that creating a recreation district would likely be a three- to five-year process with multiple steps involved. He also noted that a recreation district could be created to be project-oriented.

Lewis mentioned that during the combined county and town work session he asked if the recreation district could also be formed to create a revenue stream to help move the Recreation Department forward each year, potentially funding multiple projects — including a new recreation center — rather than just being focused on one goal, “but the process involved, it’s quite lengthy, and it’s quite demanding, in my opinion, based off what I heard that evening.”

He added, “I’m not saying the rec district is off the table.” 

Lewis explained that the community would need to decide if it would be project-oriented or propose a tax to help fund recreation throughout the community.

Board member Mike Musgrove noted that a new tax proposal would have to go to the voters.

Lewis went on to explain that Archuleta County would essentially act as the “chair” of the recreation district. 

He also indicated that an entity would have to apply with the state to become a recreation district, indicating that he believes the Town of Pagosa Springs could be that entity.

Board members Sally High and Kevin Metzler noted they had attended the combined town and county work session and were unsure if the Town of Pagosa Springs could be an entity to apply to become a recreation district.

“It would require a group of citizens, with motivation and the money, outside the town government or the county government to initiate this process,” High said.

“Or an entity, not just strictly citizens,” Metzler added.

High went on to mention that Weaver noted four steps involved in the process of creating a recreation district, each with multiple sub-steps, “and each step costs a lot of money.”

Lewis stated that he would double check with Weaver regarding if the town could serve as the entity that can apply to become a recreation district.

“I think, at the end of the day, the enthusiasm for the rec district is gonna have to come from an entity that needs to push this forward,” Lewis said.

Lewis mentioned that the town’s Parks and Recreation Department currently oversees approximately a $1.8 million budget. 

He noted that is from sales tax split between the town and county and that there are approximately 15,000 to 16,000 people living in the county, and only about 1,700 living in the Town of Pagosa Springs.

“It’s just a very large budget for the Town of Pagosa Springs to run pretty much probably 85 percent of all parks and recreation that goes on within this county, and to find some type of revenue stream that could help that out, I think is very important in the future,” he said.

Lewis mentioned that a revenue stream could be created through a recreation district, or by possibly reappropriating money in the current town budget.

High questioned if the recreation district could be centered around creating a new recreation center.

Lewis indicated that would be a possibility and that the town previously attempted to fund a recreation center through a penny sales tax back in 2014, that was ultimately shut down by the voters.

“To get that collaboration and that inclusiveness would be so important for a rec center,” Lewis added.

Board member Larry Lynch mentioned that many communities in our region, such as Gunnison, Salida, Durango and Cortez, have had recreation centers funded through sales tax.

“That’s the simplest way to do it,” he said, explaining that it would need to be voted on. “I have no idea how the community feels about a sales tax increase, but the advantage there is that the tourists would be paying for a lot of that when they shop here and buy things.” 

Lynch added, “What’s the appetite of the community to do something like that? I think you’d be surprised when it comes to recreation.”

Lewis indicated that if the recreation center project proposed in 2014 would’ve been approved, the project would have been paid off by now.

Lewis cited concerns about sales tax projections at the time as to why the project did not get approved.

“If there’s a need, then we need to figure out a way to do it,” Lewis said.

Metzler indicated the end goal of creating a recreation district could be to create a revenue stream to fund multiple development projects, “which is a win-win.”

High indicated that Weaver’s presentation during the combined town and county meeting “was not well received,” in her opinion.

“I think it was educational ... I think it was a little eye-opening,” Lewis responded.

Lewis added that Weaver “put in a lot of work” in providing the legal steps involved in creating a recreation district.

“It opened up a lot of eyes and dropped a lot of jaws,” Metzler said.

Lewis indicated that the Combined Parks and Recreation Advisory Board did not need to take any action in regard to the manner and that the information presented was for discussion purposes only.